I am taking a sabbatical. There. I said it. Publicly. Now it’s real. I actually have to do it.
In the almost decade-and-a-half since I began working, the longest period of time off I’ve taken was the three-week trip I made to Malaysia in 2004. Since then, the longest period of time off I’ve taken has been five days. In none of those instances was I completely unplugged. I always had a device to connect me back to the constant stream of work communication, and I always found a way to give some of my attention to it, typically rationalizing that if I keep up with emails now, I won’t have to slog through hundreds later. But as I’m sure you know — because you’re wiser than I — recharging is an all-or-nothing kind of thing. All my bargaining to make a future re-entry to work easier only made my present resting from work harder. If you did already know that — and I mean really know it — you learned it the hard way, just like me. Over time, I’ve gotten better about unplugging while I’m away from work — particularly in the last few years — but I haven’t made as much time to be away from work as I should have, which means I haven’t been able to prevent or reverse a low-level burnout from setting in. That’s my fault; it isn’t a product of the work, the conditions, or anything other than me and my habits.
Meanwhile, this past spring, the leadership team at Newfangled began working through Traction, a book and an “entrepreneurial operating system” (EOS) that is teaching us a new way of running the business, one that both affirms and challenges things about Newfangled that we’ve held very dear. But it came to us at just the right time, when we were mature enough as a group to press in and embrace those things that continue to bear fruit, prune the things that are holding us back from breaking through the next ceiling, and completely reimagine who we are and what we do. It’s been an incredible experience for us. And I am by no means exaggerating when I say that I believe it will be solely responsible for our twenty-year-old firm living another twenty years.
In the course of adopting Traction’s EOS, each of us has had opportunity to examine and reconsider our individual roles at the firm. Are we the right person? Are we in the right “seat” (i.e. doing the right thing). For the most part, the answers have been yes. But because of our size — we’re 22 people — the answers were often yes and yes and yes. Meaning, many of us occupy more than one “seat.” My role, especially, has evolved so organically over the years that its lack of concrete job description — something that, at times, was exciting and liberating and allowed me to shape so many aspects of how we do what we do — has become a liability: As we plotted out our org chart in terms of responsibilities my name appeared more times than it should. I’m doing too many things. This isn’t a poor me or a #humblebrag. I wouldn’t be telling you this if it wasn’t both a fact and something that needs to change. Major themes for us right now are focus and unique ability. We’ve been doing the focus work as an organization for years, continually refining our positioning based upon our strengths and opportunities in the marketplace and evolving from a general-purpose web design firm to a highly specialized digital marketing agency. But unique ability is a more subtle concept, one that each of us is responsible for discerning so that our work will be of maximum value to ourselves and to each other. When too many of us are doing too many things, we’re working hard but we’re not working as intelligently as we could be. Discerning our unique ability helps us to focus in on the ways in which it brings value to the firm, and let go of those things we have been doing that are probably more profitably done by someone else. I’m excited to let go of some things. I believe everyone on our team is better off with the greatest amount of autonomy possible. But when some of us have our hands in too many things — not because any of us were ever interested in micromanagement, but because things tend to evolve that way organically — it’s a direct impediment to autonomy.
That’s where the sabbatical comes in. At some point along the way, Mark said to me, “I think you should take a sabbatical.” It’s not that I’d never thought about that — I certainly had — but I’d never thought about it seriously. It was always more of a “that’d be nice” thought and never got anywhere near “when?” or a “what would I do with the time?” But as we discussed it together, we both realized the feasibility of doing it and the value it’d offer. As for feasibility, I’m taking a month. I’ve been putting things in place to make this actually workable for everyone; few things will stop while I’m away, unlike a typical vacation where most of us can hold out and wait for that person to get back and do that thing we need them to do. As for those things that only I can do that I need to continue to do, four weeks isn’t that long. So, it’ll be ok. But then there are things that I do that I don’t need to continue to do. And we’re going to let those things either get done by someone else or get done some other way without the part I used to play. Because part of this is about recharging for me, but part of it is about rethinking what I and others do. And that’s a whole lot harder to do without a hard stop at some point.
The aspects of my role that are of greatest value to Newfangled are the coaching I do — I spend a lot of time working with people here to inspire, equip and elevate them — and what can be best described as “special projects.” Sometimes that’s pretty literal, as in unique client consulting engagements, but mostly, it’s about tackling some new thing and figuring out how to integrate it here. Many of the systems and processes that are integral to our methodology came by way of my “special projects” focus. But as things have gotten more complex, and my coaching work has gotten tangled up in so much ground-level ops, troubleshooting, and crisis management, the “special projects” have languished and goals I (and we) have had have been pushed out over and over again. So just as much as this sabbatical is about giving me a space to recharge, it’s about a necessary gap between a before and an after. I’ll be coming back with the intention of spending much more time on the “special projects” than I did before. I’m really looking forward to that.
I’m also looking forward to this four-week space. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. I have so many ideas. But I know that overloading this time with goals and activities will defeat the purpose of taking it in the first place. I don’t need four weeks of another kind of busy. I need the break. I need to be disciplined in how I choose what do with the time.
So I’m turning to you for advice. Have you taken a sabbatical? If so, what did you do with it? What advice do you have for a type-A, busybodied creature of habit who is just a few weeks away from from a mini-apocalypse (I use that word in its original sense — not an end-of-the-world, but an uncovering and revealing of what is true)? Or, if you haven’t taken one, why? What would you do if you could? Let me know your thoughts on this. I’m relying on you, because otherwise, I’m going in blind :)
In Other News: My partner and I got married in August. We spent a week in a beautiful house on a private beach afterward. I got sunburnt; she did not. I MC’ed at the Hopscotch Design Festival last week. It was cool. I selfishly made sure that an old friend of mine was on the speaker roster so that he and I could hang out and catch up. Our chickens produced their first eggs this week. ~120 people will descend upon our house this Saturday for the post-wedding party my wife and I are throwing. Highlights will include a this-is-your-life assortment of people, local food trucks (including one serving Sno-Cones!), something like 7-dozen handmade cupcakes made by one of my best friends who is vegan and won’t even be eating them, and a 7-hour playlist we created which revealed some unexpected things about each other (I went to bat for songs by Tom Petty, REM, and Bruce Springsteen, and she for songs by Counting Crows and Paul Simon — trust me, this is weird). After that, I’ll be at HOW Interactive in Chicago in early October. If you’re planning on being there, let me know! A couple weeks after that, it’s sabbatical time.
Heavy Rotation: A couple of new things thanks to All Songs Considered. Really dig The Chopin Project, by Ólafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott as well as Bermuda, by GIVERS. Couldn’t be more different. I’ll say no more. It’s better if you just listen to them and be surprised by what they are.
Recent Tabs: The Guardian. You’ve probably already watched this by now, but if not, take a half an hour to watch Saul Bass’s original Bell System logo redesign pitch. A novel composed completely of GIFs. How to set a table, millennial-style. A day at Pentagram. The latest and greatest in exoskeletons and wearable robotics. Farm Fountain. User experiences for bikes. Evidence of Time Travel is glitchy-sheik. You really don’t need to work so much. How to age gracefully.